Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Thoughts and review of 'Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work'

Authored by Nick Srnicek and Alex Willaims, (2015), Verso.

The title

I was reluctant to read the book 'Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work'. Almost everything about the title of the book put me off. For a start, and this is perhaps a matter of taste, the phrase 'Inventing the future' struck me as extremely grandiose and pretentious. 'I bet they're idiots', I thought to myself, upon first hearing the title. 'Pretentious, self-aggrandising, ungrounded, twits. I bet that book sucks.' Having said this, it should be remembered that publishers often have a say over book titles.

My second problem with the title was more analytical, and it seemed this was less likely to be an issue with the publishers. They use the phrase 'post-capitalism' in the title. Is this some trendy, uber-non-offensive way of saying 'socialism'? When I hear such phrases, alarm bells start ringing, and I suspect I'm about to engage with someone apolitical. Someone that doesn't see the necessity of class conflict. Furthermore, the word 'post' implies a patience with capitalism which I don't have. I’m reminded of when Paul Mason turned up at Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything conference and he gave a talk in which it seemed he thought advances in technology would eventually lead rather naturally to an alternative type of economy (although I couldn’t quite grasp what kind of economy he was talking about). And he didn’t mention class struggle. I'm not a post-capitalist, I'm an anti-capitalist. I don't want to wait for capitalism to somehow naturally run its course and develop into something different. God knows how long that will take and how much more damage will have been done to people and planet in that time. No. I want people to come together to force through a socialist revolution right now. In fact I'm a bit vexed it didn't happen yesterday.

Thirdly, 'a world without work', suggested that this was a book about vision. This is fine, but choosing this one feature of a future society to focus on - labour practices (or lack thereof), seemed problematic. What about the political set up? The decision making? The title suggested an automated utopia, but an automated world is only a utopia for all people if they have equal control over goods and services. Again, is this going to be a communist/socialist world? And did the authors plan on laying out some ideas for getting there? If not, the book seemed more or less a waste of time. There are already many utopian schemes such as 'the Venus Project', which don't seem particularly relevant to anything.

But I decided to read the book. A friend of mine had started reading it and, talking to her, I got the impression that the book was as scathing about the state of the current-day revolutionary left as me. So I thought it might be interesting. Another reason I thought I should check it out was that one of the authors is speaking at the Radical Assembly's Future Society event, which I don't really plan on going to, but it would be good to know what other people in the network are thinking about. Then I found out Verso had a 90% off sale, so it would cost me less than two quid. Nothing else on the Verso site jumped out at me so I decided to give Inventing the Future a shot.

The book

The book started with a critique of the current day activist left, which I mostly agreed with. They criticise the lack of large scale revolutionary thinking, and also the reactive, fire-fighter politics, and politics of protest prevalent on the left today. I was largely happy with this critique, and think this chapter is probably worth a read.[1] After this critique of the current left's 'folk politics' as they call it, I was waiting for a discussion of how the left could, as a solution to this situation, build mass, powerful working class institutions, perhaps on an international scale which pose a genuine threat to the reigning order. However, such a discussion never came.

Instead, they talked a lot in the book about the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), Friedrich Hayek’s neoliberal think tank. Established in the 1940's, the MPS helped set up several other think tanks, which Srnicek and Williams (S&W) claim are largely responsible for the changes from post-war Keynesianism to our current 'neoliberal' global economic set up. The authors' central proposal was that the left takes influence from this organisation by building its own network of think tanks and becoming influential in education and the mainstream media. I was disappointed by this strategy suggestion to put it mildly.

Firstly, S&W fail to acknowledge that insofar as these neoliberal think tanks gained popularity with power centres, it was because their ideas are supportive of increasing the power of the bourgeoisie. Where their ideas conflict with bourgeois power, they are largely rejected. No head of state considers really implementing Austrian economics, and letting the major banks fail, for example. Further, rather than being masterminded by the MPS, economic shifts towards neoliberalism have largely reflected shifts in the balance of power between, in blunt terms, working class organisations and the bourgeoisie.[2]  The idea that this process was driven by any think tanks seems to be a bizarrely naive misreading of history.

Further, the suggestion that leftist think tanks could replicate the supposed ideological success of the MPS, seems fanciful to say the least. This is not to say I don't think the left should have a network of think tanks or try to be as influential as possible in all forms of media and education (although keeping in mind the problems that come with engaging with especially the mainstream media). However, it is ridiculous to suggest the mainstream media and education systems would ever let revolutionaries become anywhere near hegemonic.

Some of S&W's other suggestions were fine, even inspiring. Their proposal that the left needs to reclaim the territory of big visions, progress and utopian thinking was welcome. I enjoyed the discussion of the long term vision of fully automated society in which people are provided for and all are free to pursue their own interests. I could also get on board with some of the reforms they suggest as stepping stones, including universal basic income and a four day working week. They also mention various interesting tactical ideas such as 'proxy strikes' in France where workers don't declare a strike, so still get paid, but allow the community to blockade or occupy the workplace.

However, there are some issues around their future society and reform proposals. Firstly, it is unclear how they are applicable to rural, peasant societies which still exist in large parts of the world. But even further than this, as mentioned, the book isn't very helpful in terms of providing a credible strategy for how the left in the West can get from where it is now, in a state of weak 'folk-politics', to a globally hegemonic movement with the power to achieve fully automated luxury communism, or even the intermittent reforms. So whilst the book has some interesting ideas, it is not really a very practical guide for revolutionaries, as one might hope from the grandiose title 'Inventing the Future'. In fact the core strategy suggestions from S&W, if taken seriously by enough current activists (you never know), could possibly manage to weaken the revolutionary left even further. An impressive feat.

On the other hand, in terms of proposing “the left’s” go-to revolutionary utopian ideas, then the book does this in a lively, and thought-provoking way in parts. And the critique of the present day “left” is largely worth paying attention to. Plus it’s not that long. So overall I found it a good effort and worth reading.  

[1] Having said this, I’m not sure how original the critique is. I feel I’ve been reading similar critiques for the last 10 years. John Sanbonmatsu’s ‘The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy and the Making of a New Political Subject’ (2003), Monthly Review Press, is an early example. A recent example is this Scott Jay blog post ‘The postmodern left and the success of neoliberalism’: http://libcom.org/library/postmodern-left-success-neoliberalism.
[2] See David Harvey’s book ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’. There are free PDFs of it online. S&W try to refute Harvey’s arguments in the book but I don’t think they do a good job of it. They argue that because Keyensianism was dominant and was seen as being in the interest of capitalists, this shows neoliberalism was not brought about due to class interests. But they fail to consider that Keyesnianism was temporarily seen as being in the interests of the bourgeoisie to make concessions to the working class in the face of a well-organised, potentially revolutionary working class.